Monday, August 10, 2015

Meditation: On the Elegy as a Political Act

Brandon Shimoda was in St. Louis yesterday for the one year anniversary of Michael Brown's death. He posted three photographs of the memorial constructed on Canfield Drive in Ferguson at the place where Brown died and his body was left for hours. (See @brandonshimoda). His photographs are close-ups; unless you read the caption, you don't know where you are on this earth. What you see are legions of stuffed animals. I don't know my Disney or Muppets iconography at all well, but it's their characters I see piled on top of one another, a plastic red fire truck placed neatly in front of them. Here is the first of his photos:

And here is a second photograph:


Michael Brown was 18 years old. He had just graduated from high school and was headed to community college when he was killed violently. What does it mean that his memorial is covered by stuffed animals, drowning in the symbolism of "the happiest place on earth" and other American fantasy lands? Is this a memorial to Michael Brown's childhood? To ours? Does it cover over (literally) the stain of American adulthood, with its worship of guns and violence? Does the memorial take us from the day of his death to an eternal childhood, where we feel safe, if only in our imaginations? Is that a cheap form of transcendence, like some versions of the Romantic lyric beheld from the vantage point of 2015? The toys represent an odd form of happiness, one that seems quite at odds with an actual place in Ferguson, MO. In an email, Brandon tells me that many of the stuffed animals bear the name of someone killed by police. I can't handle the symbolism. There is nothing more powerless than a stuffed animal, nothing more childlike. A 12-year old was arrested this evening in St. Louis. She said she was scared. Now we're told, via Twitter, that she's 18. But she's very small, standing in her handcuffs, and the cops are large.

This is only the latest iteration of the Michael Brown memorial, which over the past year has been taken away, run over, desecrated, then re-made. Shimoda's is a particular angle on the latest memorial, a claustrophobic one that does not give its place away. Another view, posted on August 4, comes from a Google Earth capture. Because Google Earth changes so often, such "captures" are necessary to preserve visual histories. I found this photograph via a discussion by Seph Rodney. Originally posted by Jessica Lussenhop, it looks like this:

This odd angle, which makes the roads and parking lot resemble nothing so much as a swastika, tells us the street name (because that is what's important on Google Earth) and shows us a ribbon running down the center of Canfield, along with a memorial pile under a tree next to the road, beside a parking lot, where a man with white shoes stands facing the street (I think). There are three people under the tree at the tree memorial who look toward the man in white shoes. We see them from above as tiny lines, not as human beings. Lussenhop insists in her tweet that the memorial "lives on." What does it mean to "live on" as a screen capture off the ever-changing Google Earth? This photograph seems more a memorial to the street, or even to Google Earth itself, than to Michael Brown. It has nothing to do with childhood, and like the photographs at closer range, seems to have nothing to do with Michael Brown himself. In some sense, these are memorials to the idea of memorials, how they occupy a landscape.

As I write this, I go to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on-line. I read that paper often, at least during baseball season. It's the day after the first anniversary of Brown's death. A man was shot by under cover police last night in Ferguson. A state of emergency has been proclaimed. Cornel West sits in the front of the photograph of protesters in front of the Federal Building in St. Louis; a policeman stands, his back to the camera. People are getting arrested. The St. Louis County Executive states that, "The recent acts of violence will not be tolerated in a community that has worked so tirelessly over the last year to rebuild and become stronger," that, "The time and investment in Ferguson and Dellwood will not be destroyed by a few that wish to violate the rights of others." But these words don't align with the peaceful and silent protesters pictured to the left of the column where he is quoted. People are sitting, still as a memorial to the dead, on a sidewalk. They are not stuffed animals; they are adults whose faces radiate pain and stoicism. We see them around the fulsome back-side of a policeman who lacks a face, but carries plastic cuffs and other paraphernalia of physical restraint. Order must be maintained.

I recently participated in a project called Lament for the Dead (see, organized by Carey Wallace. The website publishes a poem for everyone killed by police this summer, as well as for every policeman killed. The page is black with white print, like a gravestone or like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Each poet is given a few hours to compose a poem based on a news report about the death. Many of the dead lack names, either at first, or even later on. They are the unknown soldiers in this crazy war. My young man (22) came first without a name. When I googled him (Google Death, not Earth), he turned into Charles Bertram of El Paso, Texas, killed by police outside a sports bar after allegedly drawing a weapon. His mother was not told why he was shot; his "baby mom" was threatened by detectives (his mother said). If she did not cooperate, they would destroy his property. It all comes down to property, doesn't it? Or the sick kind of propriety that America demands of its citizens. The poem itself offered a kind of property (he was my subject) and propriety (there was a form to fill in, that of the elegy). The elegy is a form of order, too, a genre of restraint. The power of Allen Ginsburg's "Kaddish" is its breaking of restraint, decorum, its emotional violence. And its use of detail.

The elegy has more than one lens, a short one and a long one, a panoramic and a microscopic one. We see the little red truck and we see the larger geometry of the street. Pull back farther and you see the circumstances that made the tragedy possible, even inevitable in our historical context. But the elegies I teach, those that are in some way canonical, are less about details than about general principles. The athlete who died young, memorialized by A.E. Housman, ran down a street, but we don't know its name; the subject of Hart Crane's "Praise for an Urn" was like Pierrot and Gargantua, but was not either of them. If the elegy is an engine of meaning, then the engine tends to run very hot and quick, from material body to substanceless stars. But a book like Eleni Sikelianos's The Book of Jon, written mostly in prose, concentrates on detail, the materials in her late father's possession when he died of a drug overdose in a hotel room. The details tend at first to turn my students off. Cigarettes, combs, not much more than that. The details are pathetic and, until you point out their pathos, they do not lend themselves to an empathetic reading. He was a drug abuser, after all, and if the War on Drugs did anything, it was to make drug abusers seem like lesser souls.

The poems on the Lament for the Dead website oscillate between detail (they are usually based on a single news report) and the desire to memorialize an entire life. How can a writer move from a violent detail (he had knife, he was shot in the back, there was blood on the street) back into the life of someone he or she never knew? The writers are in no way associated even with the place in which the event occurred (I was struck by the fact that a woman who lives in Rock Island, Illinois wrote about an unnamed man killed by police in Kahului on Maui, for example). They tend not to share the race or gender or age of the victims. So, poets reach for validation in a lyrical gesture toward meaning. A lot of the meaning emerges from not-knowing. Elizabeth Robinson: "That you had a name but left your name behind / where we cannot find it." Rachel Kubie: "but he was unnamed, / wandering at night with his shining youth / with foreign currency in his pocket / threats and greetings on his lips / and the river of night to cross"[.] The elegy mourns that not-knowing, even as it tries to arrive at the life at the point it was lost. It's a difficult feeling, this trying to know, but having no way to know, or indeed to feel. Elegists always have the mystery of death in front of them, but the mystery of life takes over many of these poems.

So what is the meaning of the mystery, when there is so little evidence of a life? Housman had a type (the athlete, who did athletic things); Shelley had his friend Keats (who died, in part, of a bad review, or so we're told); Sikelianos had her father, whom she had not known well. But at least she had photographs, a few stray memories, people to interview. At least can be very small, but at least there's that. Many of the elegies here, like Norman Fischer's, repeat the "facts" of the case, then open out, as the soul enters the world unbodied. Others use whatever facts could be found, as in Erika Staiti's elegy for Christian Taylor, an unarmed black man (19) killed at a car dealership in Texas a few days ago. Of Taylor she writes: "Young and unarmed and black and / a homicide—your cause of death: / gunshot wounds to the neck, chest and abdomen." Of his killer: "Miller had no previous police experience, / no disciplinary history or commendations." She includes this detail in a poem that looks very much like poem, running in tercets down the page until we arrive at haunting words by the dead man himself: “I don’t wanna die / too younggggg.” Jaimie Gusman Nagle writes about a man who suffered mental illness, Michael Westrich, 59, of Beaverton, Oregon. She begins by imagining Westrich's thoughts on that day:

Big Mike
might have thought of his time

in Santa Barbara, how the fog
made his breath feel less

like a wound, and more
like a bloodless river

and then leaps into the personal pronoun: "I’ve also felt buried alive." The I belongs maybe to the poet, certainly to a character in her poem. This I possesses the empathy of shared anomie, a difficult sharing. Hers is one of the few poems that makes so direct a link between the victim and poet or speaker. The word "might" is the hinge on which this poem opens. He might have thought something; someone who calls herself I might have felt something similar. It's a frail hinge, probably lacking a couple of screws, but there's light on the other side of that door.

The elegies on this website tend toward the conventional, by which I mean they are poems that lament the particular dead and try to find meaning in that death. They do not make direct political statements, unless to note that so many of these deaths occur in similar circumstances. And in passing. Empathy is a politics, yes, the primary politics to be found here. But there are no calls to the barricades, no calling out of the police, very few references to the American worship of guns. It's an oddly apolitical political place. Yet by way of accumulation, day after day after day of deaths, mostly at the hands of police, the reader cannot help but arrive, by way of inductive reasoning, at one conclusion only. Our society is sick. We kill each other at an alarming rate. The police kill black men and the mentally ill of all races out of proportion to anyone else. The website becomes a memorial of memorials, each poem piled on the last as if left on a dark street. If elegy comes inevitably of subtraction, the accretion of elegies makes of those subtractions a horrifying addition problem. The poems repeat and repeat and repeat. Such repetition is not in itself a political action, but drives us to realize its necessity. The details more than suggest an institution; they demand its dismantling.

Brandon Shimoda writes me to question the bringing together of the dead killed by police and the police killed in the line of duty. He wonders if there is not a mistaken equivalency here. If there is, I would say that it is a lyrical equivalency. We mourn the dead not for their morality, but for their being dead. If we believe in the precious human body of Buddhism, then all bodies should be mourned, because their existences have not come to an end. This is bad racial politics, but a good spiritual practice. And how do we reconcile that? With anger (justified, deep, destructive, and perhaps constructive) or with forgiveness (counter-intuitive, like that offered to the murderer in Charleston by his victims' survivors). Again, good politics or good spiritual practice? Is there a way to link them? I would say that the Lament for the Dead website has chosen the lyric's emphasis on the individual, but a possibility remains that in the addition of all these lyrics, a practical politics can arise. Such politics involves the dismantling of institutions, but also asks us to see each other as like each other. Some days, many days, that seems the most difficult act of all.

The Michael Brown memorial is one such act of addition and repetition. The memorial is not stable. It began with a line of roses and the tree, which was vandalized; it is now a pile of stuffed animals. There is, as yet, no name on Michael Brown's grave, just a piece of plywood with "RIP MB" scrawled across it. The point of these elegies might be that there is no name because there are so many. There are (and I cringe to write this) the celebrity dead whose stories we have heard over and again on the television. But most of the dead are anonymous, mostly because we haven't heard their stories. Just iterations and re-iterations of a particular kind of horror that is intimately tied to American history. I can imagine so many black men, escaped from slavery, hunted down and then returned to slavery or shot dead. I can imagine those men lynched. I can see Charles Bertram, 22, shot and killed on Dyer Ave. in El Paso Texas, and I can also see (on television) his mother saying that no one at the hospital would tell her why he was shot. History is a terrible echo chamber. We need to act from within its trauma, and without grieving we are paralyzed.

Here is my poem, revised a bit, using the form of the Craigslist "missed connections" sites:

Craigslist Missed Connection

(in memorium. Charles Bertram)

You were the guy in parentheses: “There was a foot pursuit and the officer followed (the man).” Your family could not be reached for comment, but the reporter's number is 546-6102. We might have met at the Players' bar near the strip mall downtown, but the newspaper photos are of a gas station off Dyer Road. There's yellow tape around the pumps, a dull silver car three or four rows down, and a lit-up cop cruiser in front of the ice machine (10 lbs. bags). What is the city over the mountains / Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

You were the occupant of the car with the gun, or so the officer told reporters. On the police department website I read that, “the preservation of life [is] our sacred duty. Our value of human life set our priorities.” They are not releasing “any of that” right now. (Hence, more generally) an afterthought, an explanatory aside.

You lived near Fort Bliss, held by the Confederacy from 1861-1862, in the city that soon expects more military personnel and a bigger airfield. You were the guy in the city whose theater was recently refurbished (for $38 million) and whose new freeway heralds urban sprawl. Ringed by the flat horizon only You were the guy in a car who'd been in jail 18 times since 2011 for lacking a license, for driving under the influence, for having no insurance. You were 22 years old.

You were (the man) who collapsed near the sports bar and was pronounced dead. My son pronounces “dead” “did.” It was someone's deed, but not for car or house. No one would tell your mother at the hospital why you'd been shot. “The detective told my son's baby mom that if she did not cooperate, they were going to burn all of his property.” What did you have on you? That license, some photos, a few bucks, a can of beer, maybe the gun you're alleged to have fired?

You were the man whose sister asked God on TV to bless you and let you rest in peace, whose girlfriend it must have been standing next to your mother between the road and a high metal fence, their eyes walled with pain. What is that sound high in the air / Murmur of maternal lamentation

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London El Paso
All too real

Traci Blackmon, a UCC minister in St. Louis, writes on her facebook page this evening:
"I live in a place where federal buildings go on lock down when people come to report a national threat...county jails shut down to keep citizens out when there is no threat...and a county executive who does not have the authority to declare a state of emergency...does...and no one says a word.
This is my reality."


Language from “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, various news reports, the Oxford English Dictionary and websites, including Wikipedia.


Susan M. Schultz is a poet professor who lives on O'ahu and runs Tinfish Press.

No comments: